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Impressions- closing the circle in Alhambra and old Chinatown

Column/Thomas T. Huang



Impressions: closing the circle

in Alhambra and old Chinatown

My grandparents brought me to a small restaurant in Chinatown. We went to see the older section of town, where the young and the old cluttered the sidewalks. When two girls in high-heels laughed, I turned. A gray-haired woman looked through the trash cans.

I opened the restaurant door for my grandmother and smelled roast duck. White Oriental faces watched us from murals on the walls. The waiters didn't wear red jackets, and the customers didn't get fortune cookies with the bill.

Grandfather sat down at a table at the window and sighed. He was tired. He had followed Grandma and me through the dusty grocery shops that lined the street. There, butchers took whole chickens from the display windows and hacked them into small pieces. They wiped the blood off their hands with white aprons. I could still smell the ginger and garbage.

What you like? Grandma asked. As she smiled, I saw her decayed teeth. Your Mommy and Daddy, they like ... Her hands moved along the plastic-covered table and outlined a sausage. Our hands spoke.

My grandmother's face was wrinkled. She doesn't look like my mother, but her efforts to talk to me reminded me of Mom. On a trip to Europe, my mother would try to talk with the German waitresses. We would hide our faces behind the menus.

I hadn't seen my grandparents<>


in four years, but I was in California for the summer. Over the phone, my mother said, Grandma thinks you don't want to visit them because you can't speak their language.

That's not it at all, I said. Even if I knew Chinese, what would we talk about? I wouldn't fit in.

Go see them, she said. They're very lonely.

A car honked. I looked out the window and saw the restaurant owner standing outside. The man yelled at a boy who was trying to cross the street. His belly hung over his belt. His white hair was greased down. He stared into the crowded street. The boy had a cigarette and blew smoke.

What am I doing here? Maybe that's what the old man yelled. The families inside lifted their bowls to scoop rice into their mouths.

What am I doing here? I looked like everybody else but was different inside. We ate food I didn't recognize: crullers -- long, doughy pastries -- and beef tripe. We drank soy bean milk. As Grandfather ate his food quietly, I tried to jam a cruller into my mouth. Grandma laughed, and for a moment, she was my mother. They both close their eyes whenever they laugh. Dipping, dipping, she said. She dipped my pastry in the soy bean milk.

My grandparents live in Alhambra, a suburb of Los Angeles. Its population is mostly<>


Chinese. As I drove down the main street, I saw a National Bank of Canton and an Alpha Beta supermarket built like an Oriental pagoda. Other than that, Alhambra was like any suburb I'd seen in Chicago.

The streets were quiet, empty.

I rolled down the window to breathe in the fresh air. No more rotting fish. I studied the brick houses and grass lawns. A middle-aged Chinese man parked his Oldsmobile down the block, so his three children could play basketball in the driveway.

We got back at dusk. Grandma took her small purse and opened the door to go out for her evening walk. She turned and I looked at her. She took my hand and we walked out.

The California summer air was dry, different from the Midwest mugginess. It absorbed both moisture and noise. Suddenly I felt protective, a giant next to her. She seemed fragile in the twilight street. This small woman bore my mother, who bore me.

Close the circle.

At the supermarket, she squinted as she inspected the apples and oranges. I picked up a bunch of grapes and asked, What are these in Chinese? Grandma told me, but I don't remember it anymore. These are grapes, I told her. She probably doesn't remember, either.

Sometimes we feel isolated, out of place.

We could only hold hands as we walked back.